The former Kerry captain and All-Ireland winner sits down with Shane Stapleton to preview the 2023 SFC final against Dublin.
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What areas will be important in Dublin v Kerry?
To be honest, from a Dublin point of view, you’re expecting Fitzsimons to go on Clifford. An interesting one will be do they plonk a second player back there or do they try to get someone to drop when Kerry have the ball, which I think can be quite difficult.
The great Dublin teams that were winning All-Irelands, I always said that they were the best at scramble defence, they saw danger quicker than any other team. Whether that was sheer desire, intelligence, or a worked-out plan, they always seemed to sense danger quicker than anyone else. Very rarely do players get in one-on-one.
I felt that myself in numerous games where you think ‘if I can get this fella one-on-one’ but there would be 50 minutes on the clock and you’d think ‘Jesus, I haven’t had one chance to go at this guy’. So, that will be interesting to see if Dublin drop someone back. It will obviously free up Tadhg Morley and he can play that game as well as anybody.
The other thing with Kerry is that they were brave late on in the second half against Derry. They forced Derry to kick it out, went hard on the breaks, and backed themselves a bit more. Do they do that from the start against Dublin? Because they let Derry have the kickouts in the semi-final and had 1-11 conceded in the first half, which was very unlike this Kerry team from the last couple of years. So, they will be big calls.
Kerry, more or less the 15, I don’t think there will be any changes. Dublin, on the other hand, will Bugler be fit? If he is, he’ll take watching. He’s had a very good year up to now. Kilkenny, has he been left out for the quarter and semi-final to get his gander up and get him fired up for the final? Or do they keep him in reserve? Dublin have massive household names coming off the bench and making an impact. If I was to give them an edge over Kerry, it would be on the bench.
What match-ups are key?
Obviously, whoever and however many Mark Clifford will be a big one.
John Small and Sean O’Shea will be a really good battle, a physical battle. I think Sean showed in the second half against Derry – it wasn’t going his way in the first half – but he showed unbelievable character. We know what type of footballer he is but just the mentality and character really showed in the second half. He wasn’t having his best day but he still chipped in with three huge scores.
Paudie Clifford against Eoin Murchan could be a match-up. Obviously, Paudie likes to go deep, with Murchan probably following him and maybe putting him on the backfoot.
On the other side, I think Jason Foley could be a big call to mark Con O’Callaghan. A player who I think could have a big impact, and he didn’t have a great semi-final, is Colm Basquel. I think his running style, his directness, his scoring up to now. It could be a tough game for whoever marks him, either Tom O’Sullivan or Graham O’Sullivan, because there are so many other bigger names around the place.
Have Kerry developed a harder edge now, as shown by beating Tyrone and Derry in big knockout games?
Yeah. To be fair, Kerry’s record against the Ulster teams in the past 10 years hasn’t been that bad. Obviously, a lot gets made about Tyrone beating Kerry in 2021, but they definitely have a harder edge.
You always name out the same three flair players with Kerry in David Clifford, Paudie Clifford, and Sean O’Shea but they’re as steely as anybody and as spiky as anybody on the field. When your creative player and marquee players are the toughest and crankiest on the pitch, it just sets the tone for everyone else.
I think Kerry have done really well under Jason McGahan in recent years in terms of strength and conditioning, and having that work done gives you an extra bit of confidence because you back yourself to be powerful or to take fellas on.
They have also developed a sense of structure under Paddy Tally, and that brings a bit of unity and a bit of closeness to give an extra bond. You need serious trust in the players around you and, when you have that trust and honesty that’s there, you take on the world because you know your buddy will have your back. They have developed that massively since Jack O’Connor came in.
Who is more likely to take over this final: Con O’Callaghan or David Clifford?
They’re two exceptional footballers. I’m a big fan of Con O’Callaghan but, for me, David is out on his own with the stuff he’s doing.
The one thing is that David has had a long year, he has had a tough year from a personal point of view as well, same as Paudie. But to keep doing what he’s doing, the level of performance, the way when the whistle goes he’s able to come straight down to this level-headed place and speak about the game as honestly as he does with very little emotion is a massive skill that I don’t think many other people have.
It has the ability to be Con’s final. Obviously, there was a lot said about last year when Kerry snuck it and Con obviously wasn’t playing, so this year he will be a big plus for Dublin.
It’s funny, you’d be chatting to former players and they say ‘if you can keep Clifford to five points, you’re doing alright’ and I’ve never heard that before. I grew up watching great players and played with great players but to have people saying that if you can keep a player to five scores from play, you’re doing alright. Jesus.
There’s so much attention on them that it could easily be Sean O’Shea, who has been coming in games. Paudie is very similar to Sean, he has had a lot of good moments but maybe not put it together as consistently.
On the Dublin side, you’ve had players coming in and out of the team, Kilkenny being one, and Basquel, who has had a great year up to now but didn’t have a great semi-final. He’s a direct player, an exciting player, a player I like, to be honest. He’s not looking to take the mark, he’s looking to go down the heart of the defence and it could be a big day for him. He’s been around a while so he’s had to be patient.
You have Brian Fenton and Jack Barry, who have cancelled each other out so often. Diarmuid O’Connor is probably on Brian Howard, so there’s big battles everywhere. I hope I’m wrong but I think it’s going to be a game of grind more than flair.
But the Kerry-Derry semi-final in particular was very exciting?
Both semi-finals were good games and they were a lot more open than all of us expected.
But there’s so much at stake. Kerry are going for two-in-a-row and if you look at that Dublin team that won six-in-a-row or Limerick winning four-in-a-row last weekend, a bigger deal would be made out of two-in-a-row because it’s so difficult to do.
The fact that Dublin did what they did and Limerick are doing what they’re doing at the moment, it kind of takes the gloss off it. It’s a big deal to go back-to-back and Kerry are trying to do that.
Dublin, with the players they have brought back and the players who have consistently been there for the last 10 years, you just don’t know how long it can last for. There is a sense that they brought the old boys back for one last push, and this push is literally going to be done and dusted in 70 or 80 minutes.
There is an awful lot at stake and a lot of pressure on both teams. Obviously, we would love to see it end-to-end and free-flowing, but we could see a bit to caginess at the start, a bit of containment. Kerry aren’t going to be wanting to concede scores and Dublin will be similar so they will be looking to keep it as tight as possible and keep Clifford and O’Shea as quiet as possible.
Especially for the first 20 or 25 minutes, it will be cagey, a game of containment and cancelling each other out. Hopefully after half time, when there isn’t as much time left, there will be a bit more abandonment to the game.
What are your favourite memories of finals?
Obviously 2009 when we won and I was captain. That was always going to be the one.
My first five years it was nothing but All-Ireland finals, and I assumed this was just the way it was. I was new to the panel in 2005 and made my debut in a game that didn’t go my way. We got back in 2006 and 2007 and won it, 2008 didn’t go our way.
Because you’re in the thick of it, you don’t actually think about it, how great it is, how big a deal it is, and how important it is for everyone around you. You retire or you go a couple of years without making it to a final and you realise how difficult it is and it is a massive thing to do. The whole buzz of it, the experience of it, it’s a massive test collectively and individually.
I do wish I enjoyed it a bit more, and I think that’s a fairly common theme among players. When you’re stuck in it, you don’t enjoy it. I saw Paul Galvin had a piece up on LinkedIn and he said you do get wrapped up in your sports careers and everything else goes by the wayside — your personal and professional development.
That’s the way I was when I was playing for Kerry, nothing else really mattered. You win a game and you’re like ‘right great, onto the next one’. You get to an All-Ireland with Kerry and you’ll obviously have your week of poisoning the body, but then it’s back to the club and it’s ‘right, this is a new pressure’ because there’s more expected of you.
So, it’s probably a regret that I didn’t enjoy the finals and the build-up more.
In 2016, Kerry’s zonal marking set-up rumbled Cluxton and you got a goal from it — why did it work, and can Kerry do that again?
Cluxton was the platform, the quarter-back, he started everything off and we felt we could get at him. Obviously, it was risk-reward.
We started well in 2016, I got the goal and I actually tore my quad in that game from the first ball I kicked into Donaghy. The goal, Donnacha or Paul Geaney popped it to me and I should have just tapped it in with my left but I had to open up my body and tap it in with my right because I was afraid of the quad going even more. I think it was Jonny Cooper or someone bundled me into the back of the goal. And the stanchion at the back of the goal, I hopped my coccyx off it. I’ll never forget the pain of the bar hitting the bone.
You have to be brave, and we were being brave. If we sat back, it was very hard to get the ball off the Dubs, they were really patient, they had their style of play and they didn’t care if they had to hold it for 10 minutes at a time. Our thing was ‘right, let’s force them to go long’ because we felt we could win it long.
We also felt that Cluxton, the type of goalie he was, wouldn’t be happy just booting it 60 yards long every time, or chipping it 10 yards to a corner-back. They want to be picking out a lad 30 or 40 yards out, nice dinky passes. You’re giving them a hole to go to between yourself and the wing-forward or wing-back, saying ‘chance it’ while knowing full well they want to chance it and are going to pull it off. They’re not going to pull it off all the time, and when they didn’t we had our style of play that we were just going to go and go for the jugular.
It worked early days, but obviously they’re a good team and unbelievable at adapting and changing on the pitch. That was down to the training they had done but the trust Jim Gavin had installed in them as well.
Has Cluxton been tested yet since coming back?
I don’t think so. I’ve seen a lot of it in the last week that he hasn’t conceded a goal in 13 games, but he has tended to get through the games at his ease really.
He’s a class act, we all know that, and I was probably one of the people who doubted the decision to bring him back when they did. I thought it was a strange one, but obviously he’s a huge influence in the dressing room. He’s a calming influence and there’s a sense of trust with him being back.
I think Kerry will focus in on him, will try to target him because we always would have done that in the past and put him under pressure. It’s grand chipping balls out when teams have only four forwards or are bringing everyone back — it’s grand to be getting your stats at 100 per cent.
I hope Kerry do press him because I think they’re better when they’re brave. It will be interesting when the press is put on, can they start to rattle him? Even David is a big man, he’s well able over his head when a few high balls go in, so he can test him that way as well. I don’t think he’s going to have as easy a game as he has had up to now.
Did last year’s win over Dublin get the monkey off Kerry’s back in terms of this rivalry?
Yeah, we won a league final in 2017 but league and championship are chalk and cheese. I know Con was missing and this, that, and the other, but it was a big win. The manner in which they won it with the last-minute free, it was as if it was written in the stars.
You always look back to your previous game and Kerry will look back on the last time we played the Dubs and say that we won. They will look back on the first half where they outplayed Dublin and really should have been up by more, but obviously missed a penalty which would have put the game out of sight.
They probably have looked back asking ‘why did we miss the penalty?’ — the Dubs were a bit cuter, that bit of gamesmanship. There was a bit of messing around but I think Kerry will have learned an awful lot from that game. The cuteness, Dublin killed the game, they stopped the time. The black card to John Small, he was hardly out of the game at all because of how well Dublin played the clock.
You look back on your last game and can say ‘we beat them and we didn’t even play for the second half’, so I think Kerry will bring a bit of confidence from that win.
What has winning the All-Ireland last year done for Kerry’s confidence?
I think it was David and Seanie’s fifth season playing with Kerry and they hadn’t won an All-Ireland. They had won loads of personal accolades but they hadn’t gotten over the line, and that’s a big thing. That lingers when it’s four years, five years, maybe six years without winning it, then you start thinking ‘how many more years have I left, will I ever win one?’ The longer it goes, the harder it is.
Once you win one, it brings a new confidence. All of a sudden, you are the team to be beaten, to be shot at. Once you win one and come through tough games like they did against Dublin, you take so much from it. I’m 100 per cent convinced that if Kerry weren’t All-Ireland champions in that semi-final, they wouldn’t have won it. That’s down to their past experiences and the confidence it brings.
I also mentioned the trust they have in each other at the moment, that was there, they kept doing it. They stayed brave, kept pushing up, popping over scores. I think David mentioned that they looked like they started to panic a little bit, but come the last five or 10 minutes, that panic went out the window. They started to be a bit more composed. Being All-Ireland champions gave them the confidence and belief to think ‘stick to what we’re doing, we’ll be fine’.
Kerry last won back-to-back in 2006-07 — is it more difficult?
It is. We obviously done it in 2006-07, but before that it was Cork in 1989-90 and you went that length of time without it being done.
We probably should have done it on more occasions but we never got over the line. The years we didn’t do it, we got back to the All-Ireland the following year which shows we weren’t a million miles away.
It’s extremely tough, but the fact that the Dubs came and made a mockery of it, it almost made it look easier but it wasn’t. What the Dubs did was out of this world and you do need a bit of luck along the way no matter how many times you win it. Maybe you come up against teams in transition, you’re at the peak of your power, but you have to make the most of it.
The one thing about the Dubs when they were winning year after year, they weren’t doing anything spectacular, they were doing the basics better than anyone else. They tackled harder, saw danger better, got back into their defensive system better than everyone else, transitioned into attack better than everyone else. The only reason you can do that is that you really want to do it. They seemed to have that and had it six years on the bounce, which was phenomenal.
Who will win and why?
I genuinely believe it’s 50-50. I’m finding it really hard to call.
For Kerry to win it, they have to be brave and have to be leading going into the last 10 minutes. I think Kerry will win it by a couple of points but they will have to be leading in the last quarter. They’ll have the experience to hold the ball and force Dublin into being a bit more ambitious than they would like.
But I have a fear that if it comes down to the last 10 minutes, Dublin have the better options coming off the bench. I’d be saying Kerry by one or two points, but a draw is very much on the cards.
I think it’s one of the hardest finals to call in a number of years. There’s so much unknown about both teams and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of the both of them yet this year.
I’ll stick my neck on the line and say Kerry by two.